Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sarah WATERS ... The Little Stranger (Virago/Riverhead, 2009)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Kamila SHAMSIE ... Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury/Picador USA, 2009)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Abby WONG ... On men who read

ABBY WONG, who believes no book is a bad book, downsized from being a high-flying financial consultant to a book buyer because she loves being surrounded by books. Want to attract attention, guys? Flaunt a book, she advises.

MEN are most attractive when they are reading. I don’t know about you, but I can get totally intoxicated by the sight of a man reading. Let me explain.

I once saw a man sitting on a bench in a shopping arcade, legs crossed, one hand holding a book in his lap, the other propping up his chin. He was reading quietly and intently, deeply engrossed, and to me, painfully attractive.

I imagined what must be going on in his head. Each word and line he read would send a signal to his brain, making him think, connect, judge, react, and opine. As he turned the last page, all those lines would have added up, and he would have gained new knowledge, perspective, ideas, inspiration, or even hope—none of which would have emerged had he gone for a drink or two instead of reading.

Unable to pull myself away from the beautiful sight of a man with a book in his hand, I walked back and forth in front of him, squinting to see the book’s title. I wanted to pin this image into my mind so I would remember it forever; the surreptitious glances I was throwing him was not enough to do that, so I began to stare right at him, boldly admiring the contours of a studious face.

Which bookstore does he frequent, I wondered? I wanted to meet him there. My mind was racing and would not stop speculating.

He looked up, as though hearing my inner voice. Setting the book down, he placed both hands on top of his head and moved it back and forth lightly, muttering to himself; then dived back into the sea of words. Again, he became deeply engrossed, and even more painfully attractive to me. He must have been thinking and analysing. His brain cells were connecting, his wisdom welling. Ooh, he was too delicious to watch!

I left, finally, but my soul must have stayed with him because I was in a daze the rest of the day. In an effort to seduce my bookish soul to return, I frantically called and met with some male friends whom I had thought were as book-loving as me.

But I realised book lovers did not equate genuine readers. It was the sight of the engrossed reader that my soul had fallen in love with. Having failed to find him after a few visits to bookstores in the area, I was despondent.

That’s when I arrived at a revelation about men: Reading changes our view of men. The concentration a true lover of books brings to the task of reading tones down their male virility, revealing a calm and composed disposition. Holding a book in one hand, another casually stuck in a pocket, men become contentedly self-possessed and charmingly nonchalant amidst the hustle and bustle around them.

More importantly, that they are grappling with materials of importance—for it must be important in some way to have been printed as a book!—reassures me that they have individuality, and beliefs and opinions of their own, and enhances my impression of men as intelligent and logical beings.

Such are the thoughts triggered in my mind by images of a man with a book in hand, a conflation of quietude, serenity, and intellectualism.

But this pleasing sight is a rarity, I’ve found, often confined to bookstores alone. So I’m pleading with men everywhere, read, lest the male book-reading species becomes extinct.

Men, please read while you are on trains, as the pretty sight helps alleviate my irritation when the trains break down, as they so often do these days. Lug along a book the next time you are out running errands, guys, for the view of you reading eases the agony of waiting in line.

A sock ‘em, rock ‘em energetic night out can be exciting, but a trip to your local bookstore once in a while may prove to be even more fruitful. Sift through the wonderful display, fellas, as the book that finds you may very well turn out to be an exquisite gem—and the sight of it in your hand might catch the eye of a female of the species, if you are looking to attract one.

And gentlemen, if you find yourself floundering in the massive sea of books, as yet unsure of what to read, these dozen titles below are potentially manna to nourish your literary soul:

1. American Psycho / Bret Easton Ellis
2. Atlas Shrugged / Ayn Rand
3. Brave New World / Aldous Huxley
4. Confessions of an Economic Hitman / John Perkins
5. High Fidelity / Nick Hornby
6. Money / Martin Amis
7. Nation / Terry Pratchett
8. Outliers / Malcolm Gladwell
9. The Alchemist / Paulo Coelho
10. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale / Art Spiegelman
11. The Milliennium Series (comprising The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and
12. The Girl Who Played with Fire (the final book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, will be released in late 2009) / Stieg Larsson
13. A Wild Sheep Chase / Haruki Murakami

I hope my confession will convince at least one guy out there to not only wear a book when he goes out, but to also read it in public whenever there’s an opportunity to do so. He would greatly please spectators like myself, as well as, I am sure, many other women.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of May 24, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

2009 Desmond Elliot Prize Shortlist

EDWARD HOGAN’s dèbut novel, Blackmoor (Simon & Schuster, 2008), has made it onto another literary prize shortlist. This time it is the 2009 Desmond Elliott Prize for a first novel published in the U.K., it was announced on May 26, 2009. Hogan’s novel is shortlisted alongside Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s A Girl Made of Dust (Fourth Estate, 2008) and Anthony Quinn’s The Rescue Man (Jonathan Cape, 2009).

The Desmond Elliott Prize 2009 panel of judges is chaired by Candida Lycett Green who is joined by former Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay, and Rodney Troubridge of Waterstone’s. Lycett Green comments: “We have been both entertained and inspired by the quality of writing amongst the contenders for this year’s shortlist and it was very difficult to decide on a final three. The result is a shortlist of three haunting books, all gripping in different ways while dealing with the complications of love and life in extremis. Together they are a celebration of new writing of which Desmond Elliott would be proud.”

The Prize was established in 2008 in honour of publisher and literary agent Desmond Elliott, one of the most successful men in this field, who died in August 2003. He stipulated that his estate should be invested in a charitable trust that would fund a literary award “to enrich the careers of new writers.” Worth £10,000 to the winner, the prize is intended to support new writers and to celebrate new writing. The inaugural prize was awarded to Nikita Lalwani for her first novel, Gifted. The winner of the 2009 Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced on June 24, 2009.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alice MUNRO wins the 2009 Man Booker International Prize

CELEBRATED Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro has won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for a body of work that has contributed to world literature. She has published 12 short-story collections, three of which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction (Dance of the Happy Shades, The Progress of Love, The Beggar Maid). She has won two Gillers (Runaway, The Love of a Good Woman). Her début collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968. Her fourth collection, The Beggar Maid (published in Canada in 1978 as Who Do You Think You Are?) was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize for Fiction. Her most recent collection is The View from Castle Rock, published in 2006.

Munro was selected from a shortlist of international writers that included Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, Australia’s Peter Carey, the U.K.’s Booker Prize-winning Scottish writer James Kelman, E.L. Doctorow and prolific U.S. literary powerhouse Joyce Carol Oates, Evan S. Connell, Mahasweta Devi, Arnost Lustig, Antonio Tabucchi, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Dubravka Ugresic and Ludmila Ulitskaya. She is the only Canadian on the shortlist.

She is the third writer to win the £60,000 Man Booker International Prize, following Ismail Kadare (Albania) in 2005 and Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) in 2007.

Her new collection, Too Much Happiness, will be published by Chatto & Windus in October 2009.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


ERIC FORBES talks to NINA VIDA, the author of The Texicans and Goodbye, Saigon, among other novels

NINA VIDA is the author of seven novels: Scam, Return from Darkness, Maximillian’s Garden, Goodbye, Saigon, Between Sisters, The End of Marriage, The Texicans, and the forthcoming Lilli. She began writing in 1975 while working on a degree in English. She lives with her husband Marvin who is a lawyer in Huntington Beach, California. Check out Nina’s website at

Tell me something about yourself.
I’m a native Californian, married to an attorney. We married very young. It wasn’t until later on that my husband went to law school and I got a university degree in English. Our two children are grown now and have successful careers; our daughter is a partner in an international accounting firm and our son is a partner in a large law firm. We live in the house where our children grew up, not far from the beach. Growing up I thought I would be a concert pianist. I still play the piano, but it has taken a back seat to my writing.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I was always a facile writer, composed pretty sentences for English class in high school, but never, ever for one single, solitary moment thought of writing a story or poem or essay on my own. I thought of writers as magical beings who from the cradle were touched by the writing muse. But like all things in life, there is no program for what becomes of us. There is no instruction booklet on how to proceed in life. Everything is serendipitous—sort of. By my forties I still hadn’t shown any inclination to strike out as a writer, although if one could read the tea leaves, all my life I was in training to become one. Meanwhile I busied myself with home and children, became a small authority on Asian porcelain, gardened my brains out, and read and read and read. A happy life indeed.

It was an essay I wrote for an English class in college. My husband, who had been a Navy journalist, read it, and prodded me to try my hand at a novel. I balked at the idea. The prospect of putting my own thoughts on paper for others to read and criticise filled me with fear—but at the same time, what an intriguing concept—me, a writer. Wow. What did a writer do? What did a writer write? I began by writing on a yellow legal pad. I thought it made me think better to see the words being formed in ink on a page. That was the beginning.

What do you do when you are not writing? Do you write full-time?
I don’t write on a schedule. When I’m working on a book, I write pretty much every day, emptying out onto the page what’s occurred to me since the day before. There comes a point during the writing portion of the day when I know it’s time to stop, not to push on, but to let it rest. In the afternoon, my husband, who’s semi-retired, and I go for a stroll on the beach. We walk on the pier, check out the tame pelican that roosts on the rail of the pier every afternoon waiting for the fishermen to offer him some fish bait and for the tourists to take his picture. Then we head down to Main Street and sit at a sidewalk table at Starbucks, listen to the locals argue politics and watch people go by. But the book is always with me, poised, waiting. I jot notes on scraps of paper. At night in my dreams I go over and over what I’ve written. I hear the words in my sleep. An inelegant phrase or inaccurate word can wake me up and send me upstairs to my computer.

Was there much difficulty in getting your first novel published? Did it get any easier with your subsequent novels? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
It took me two years to get my first agent, who submitted my first novel, Scam, to 26 publishers before it was accepted by Macmillan. I have had a total of seven agents. All of us parted amicably. Some of my novels have been harder to sell than others. The easiest one was Goodbye, Saigon, which found a publisher in two weeks. The film rights were optioned by Dick Zanuck and purchased by MGM. There has been no movie made yet, but there’s always hope!

What kinds of books did you read during your formative years or when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? Why?
I loved adventure stories when I was growing up. Swordplay and pirates. I remember Rafael Sabatini as a favourite writer. And, of course, Louisa May Alcott.

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I read a lot of nonfiction now. Some fiction. I’ve read all of Anne Tyler, because of her attention to people’s foibles and her gentleness with them. I read Don DeLillo for his words and sentences. I read Saul Bellow for his elegant, somewhat removed, style. I read Jane Austen for her wisdom. I read Flannery O’Connor for her fearlessness.

Could you tell me a bit about The Texicans and your new novel Lilli?
The Texicans is a novel of unexpectedness. We’re all familiar with the western template, the cattle rustling and Indian raids. I chose to focus on what the rigours of frontier life does to the lives of ordinary people, how they change and grow, prosper or fail, in short, how they surprise us. The new novel, Lilli, is a story of the Jewish refugees from Hitler who found a haven in Shanghai. Again, I’m interested in the stories of individuals, how they behave under stress, how catastrophe brings out the best and worst of character.

What are some of the common themes you dealt with in some of your novels? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the novels?
I was not conscious of any themes in my work when I first began to write. I felt lucky to get words down on paper that wouldn’t embarrass me. But I’ve been writing for a long time. At first I was concerned mostly with craft, the mechanics of learning to write, of moving a person from one room to another, of not falling into bad habits, of not using an adverb after every “he said,” “she said,” of not using too many “saids” in the first place, of trying to find original, beautiful, even gorgeous ways of saying commonplace things, of trying not to be so cute no one could understand what I was writing, of not wanting to distance myself from the reader with arcane lists, of not substituting loops of scenery for human insights. My theme, if there is one, is the idea that we think we know people, but we only know them in the way we see them in ordinary life. We don’t always get to know them when critical decisions have to be made, when they’re stressed beyond comprehension, when the mask slips and true emotion is revealed. That’s what fascinates me. That’s what a lot of my writing is about.

How do you go about editing your work before sending it off to the publisher?
I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. When the point comes that I’ve rewritten to my satisfaction, I send it off to my agent, who will no doubt have suggestions for revision. I love that. Suggestions, criticisms, all of them. It sparks whole new ways of looking at what I’ve written and sends me off on even more frenzies of rewriting. And, of course, when the book is sold, the editor has her own suggestions to make, which enriches the book even further.

Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
Right now I’m been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I read lots of news magazines. I’m sort of a politics junkie.

“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
History does not write the best stories. History is always being revised. Good writers interpret history for us, make sense of it, put their spin on it, allow us to agree or disagree. Writers make the best stories out of history, which is a living construct, ever changing, always interesting, always new.

“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
In my opinion, it isn’t enough for a book to give us questions to enjoy. What I want as a reader is the resolution to a problem, even if it’s a fictional resolution, because I want to see the author’s mind at work, want to be surprised and grateful that the author has been brave enough to have a viewpoint for me to examine and mull over.

Do you think more competitions or creative-writing programs are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I have no opinion on writing competitions or creative-writing courses, except that from what I’ve observed more notice is taken of writers who win competitions and graduate from prestigious creative-writing programs and are involved in the politics of publishing.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
The essentials of good fiction are a distinctive voice, a mastery of craft, an idiosyncratic approach to language that tickles in its inventiveness but doesn’t overwhelm, an original approach to story that intrigues but doesn’t abdicate the writer’s responsibility to tell a story without gaps, misdirection and inconsistencies.

What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m working on a novel about the Vietnamese refugee community in California.

Monday, May 25, 2009

“What or who do you read if or when you are not writing?”

ERIC FORBES asked seven writers who will be appearing at the 2009 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on October 7-11, 2009, what they read for pleasure

MICHELLE CAHILL, author of The Accidental Cage, a collection of poetry: “When I’m not writing, I read newspapers; I like The Age, The Monthly and The Guardian. I read blogs like 3Quarks Daily, Facebook and literary journals, my favourite being the Asia Literary Review, Heat, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and New Quest (India). I like fiction when I have the time, I read lots of poetry ... and, for my day job I read the odd medical journal.”

KATE GRENVILLE, author of The Lieutenant, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Secret River and the Orange Prize-winning The Idea of Perfection: “I’m never not writing, so a lot of my reading has a (usually oblique) connection to the current project. Part of my next book will be set in New Zealand, so I’ve been belatedly catching up with some of the history of that country, and have been shocked at my ignorance about it. I’ve also been reading about pubs and publicans in Australia in the 1830s and ’40s—the current project is about my great-great-grandmother, the illiterate wife of a publican in the tiny town of Currabubula, New South Wales. For pleasure, I’ve been rereading Robert Drewe’s latest collection of stories called The Rip—absolutely wonderful writing, very funny, but also very perceptive. I also read the Australian literary magazine Heat, which collects a wonderful mix of pieces in every issue; there are always a couple I scribble notes all over because they’ve sparked off a few ideas.”

MO ZHI HONG, whose first novel, The Year of the Shanghai Shark, won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Southeast Asia and South Pacific): “My reading time is quite short these days, unfortunately. I do read a bit online when I can—articles, magazines and blogs. James Fallows’s blog is one that a friend of mine recommended and that I look at when I can, and Seed magazine (a science magazine) is another. With respect to fiction, I tend to try to find things that aren’t too hefty length-wise, because of time constraints. I recently read Paula Morris’s Forbidden Cities, a collection of stories that was recently shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Southeast Asia and South Pacific), and Saul Bellow’s The Actual, which is a slim, great read. Anything large I want to read I save for holidays.”

MOHAMMED HANIF, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, overall winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book: “Mostly newspapers and some blogs, and also an occasional short story. I have just started rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I hope to finish it during this summer.”

ALICE PUNG, author of the funny and engrossing memoir, Unpolished Gem: “I read decisions about minimum-wage workers and wages for employees with disability. My ‘break’ from writing is my full-time day job, thankfully one that I love. I usually have three books going on at once—a fiction, a nonfiction, and a ‘wildcard book.’ At the moment I am reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed which is a nonfiction book about a journalist who spent a year working in minimum-wage jobs in America—as this is the area of law in which I practise; a fictional book called The Slap by an Australian writer named Christos Tsiolkas about the consequences when a man slaps a boy who is not his son at a barbeque, and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, an essay about how we react to images of war and torture.”

VIKAS SWARUP, author of Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire) and Six Suspects: “The task of fiction is to illuminate life, preferably with the dull bits left out. I love reading fiction because it allows me to immerse myself in another world, a world created by the writer. I cannot name any one favourite author. I like books which are straightforward and have characters that are well fleshed out. Some of my all-time favourite books are: Albert Camus’s The Outsider, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

JEET THAYIL, author of These Errors Are Correct, a collection of poetry: “What you read leaks into your writing whether you want it to or not. I’m careful about what I look at when I’m working. If anything, it’s probably poetry. What I don’t read is newspapers and I don’t watch TV. That can suck the heart out of your day. I’m always looking for distraction, so it’s safer not to have a TV in the house. When I’m not writing it’s a whole other story. I read cookbooks for pleasure, and I read crime thrillers, the bloodier the better. I also like reference books, old books, field guides to birds, Aztec history, travel guides, trashy newspapers, mindless Hollywood. There are times I crave print. To the extent that if I find myself somewhere without anything to read, I’ll pore over the directions on a tea bag or tube of sunscreen. It’s a habit, reading, and I mean habit in the sense of addiction.”

Interviews by Eric Forbes, Tan May Lee and Janet Tay

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The island of the gods beckons again ...

2009 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

A FRAGMENT of wonderful news from Janet De Neefe, the festival director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.

The literary goddess of Ubud has announced a tentative line-up of some 70 writers, poets and artists from all corners of the world for 2009, including Adelaide-based Booker Prize-winner and Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace, Life & Times of Michael K); Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (You Must Set Forth at Dawn), the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature; Uwem Akpan (Say You’re One of Them); Vikas Swarup (Slumdog Millionaire, Six Suspects); Mexican author Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate); Hari Kunzru (My Revolutions, Transmission, The Impressionist); Mohammed Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes); Ed Husain (The Islamist); Kate Grenville (The Lieutenant, The Secret River, The Idea of Perfection, Dark Places); Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip, Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance); Wena Poon (Lions in Winter); Alice Pung (Unpolished Gem); Mo Zhi Hong (The Year of the Shanghai Shark); Antony Loewenstein (My Israel Question, The Blogging Revolution); literary agent extraordinaire David Godwin; Tash Aw (The Harmony Silk Factory, Map of the Invisible World); Rana Dasgupta (Tokyo Cancelled, Solo); Sonya Hartnett (Butterfly, Surrender, Thursday’s Child); Julia Leigh (The Disquiet, The Hunter); Alison Lester (Clive Eats Alligators, Tessa Snaps Snakes, Rosie Sips Spiders); and Tara June Winch (Swallow the Air).

Also appearing are Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Usha Akella, Asitha Ameresekere, Nigel Barley, Fatima Bhutto, Michelle Cahill, Tom Cho, Diana Darling, N.H. Dini, Gamal Al Ghitany, Riaz Hassan, Dany Laferriere, Lee Su Kim, Bejan Matur, James McBride, Mungo McCallum, Ng Yi-Sheng, John O’Sullivan, Omar Musa, W.S. Rendra, Thando Sibanda, Thant Myint-U, Jeet Thayil, Abdourahman Waberi, and others.

Now in its sixth year, the festival will run from October 7-11, 2009, with the theme Suka Duka: Compassion & Solidarity, an Indonesian philosophy that defines the essence of shared support that communities in Indonesia offer in times of joy and sorrow.

Saturday, May 23, 2009



ERIC FORBES engages AMEEN MERCHANT in a discussion about his poignant début novel, The Silent Raga, an intensely imagined and subtly nuanced exploration of the intricacies of family obligations and sibling relationships

AMEEN MERCHANT was born in Bombay in 1964 and raised in Madras. The Silent Raga (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007/HarperCollins India, 2008) is his first novel. In prose that moves from the sensuous to the sublime, and that recalls the rhythms and progression of the raga, Merchant the storyteller weaves a moving tapestry about the ties that bind us and the sacrifices we must make on the way to realising our destinies. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). He now lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he is working on a second novel.

Tell me something about yourself.
I was born in Bombay and raised in Madras. I moved to Canada to do my postgraduate work in Postcolonial/Cultural Studies, and now live, work, and make my home in Vancouver.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
When I was thirteen, fourteen. I still recall the excitement of seeing my first poem published in the “YouthInk” page of the Indian Express. Later, I wrote advertising copy for a living. When I quit that job to pursue academic work, my family and friends thought I was completely crazy.

What do you do when you are not writing? Do you write full-time?
I am writing even when I am not writing. I don’t see writing as just sitting at the computer and letting it all pour out. A good part of writing is the processing that precedes the act of writing. In that sense, I think every author is a full-time writer. But when I really want to take a break, I cook, listen to music, or catch a movie. If I want a long break, I visit my mother in India.

Was there much difficulty in getting your first novel, The Silent Raga, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
It is always difficult for first-time authors to find good publishers and agents, and I had my share of rejections and maybes. The first thing you learn is to not let that affect you too much. Sure, every time it happens you do feel letdown, but you have to put away that negativity quickly, which is always a hard thing to do. I taught myself to keep it at a distance by starting research on another project. A competent agent, a little patience, and a bit of good luck—and things do turn around. It just takes a few years for it to line up in that particular order.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? Why?
I grew up in Madras, where the school and college literature texts were basically the English canon. Everything from Defoe, Fielding, the Brontës, and all the way to Woolf, Forster and D.H. Lawrence. There are so many writers that are a source of inspiration and guidance, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Toni Morrison’s Beloved affected me deeply, and I think there might be a trace of this regard somewhere in The Silent Raga.

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I just finished reading Neil Smith’s amazing short-story collection, Bang Crunch. Next up is Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I have two big nonfiction titles on my summer reading list: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is.

Could you tell me a bit about your first novel?
The Silent Raga is the story about two sisters from a Brahmin family, and their struggle to find a place and identity in a fast-changing world. The book deals with the choices they make on their journey, and the consequences of those choices on their lives.

What are some of the themes you dealt with in The Silent Raga? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
All families are dysfunctional, and all families are dysfunctional in their own way. The Silent Raga explores this “difference” in the context of small-town, middle-class India. So, it would be safe to say that the book is about a family gone awry. But it also looks closely at the everyday trade-off between tradition and modernity, the role of religion and mythology in Indian women’s lives, the small moments of remembering and forgetting and the big moments of caring and forgiving. I knew all along what I wanted to explore, but the form it took was a discovery.

Why did you choose music as the device to frame your story?
Janaki, the protagonist, is a gifted veena player. The book is also a concert of quiet anger between the estranged sisters, and the title celebrates this internal narrative as a “silent raga.”

Why did you choose to focus on strong female voices?
I admire and value strong female voices. And strong, female readers have embraced the novel with great warmth! A few months after the book was published in South Asia, about 100-150 women got together in Madras to discuss the issues presented in the novel. They invited a classical musician to play a few Carnatic krithis mentioned in the novel, and they also recruited a theatre personality to read passages from the novel. The pièce de résistance? They put the whole event on a DVD and mailed it to me in Canada! Similarly, Canadian Living (a leading women’s journal in Canada) chose The Silent Raga as their “Book of the Month” just four weeks after it was published in Canada. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception!

“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
If it writes it like Marquez or Rushdie, I’ll read it.

“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
The right question can be an answer in itself.

You were shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
Creative writing courses may help you hone your skills as a writer, but they cannot teach you how to write. But if you can write, writing workshops are a great way to polish your work. It is always better to have a full manuscript before signing up to workshop it. That way, you can keep your creative vision intact, and still incorporate the structural suggestions gleaned from the workshop sessions. Prizes and awards are a huge source of encouragement for every author (particularly a first-time author), and a big boost for the profile and visibility of the book in a crowded marketplace. It was an honour and a privilege to be on the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
“Have you seen things this way?” That’s the essence of all good fiction.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve started work on a new novel. It is somewhat of a slow, steep climb right now.

Friday, May 22, 2009



JOSH WEIL is the author of The New Valley (Grove/Atlantic, June 2009), a collection of three novellas, and has been a regular contributor to The New York Times. He was born in 1976 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia. His short fiction has been published in Granta, StoryQuarterly, New England Review and Narrative, among other journals and magazines. Since earning his MFA from Columbia University, he has received a Fulbright Grant, scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He currently divides his time between New York City and a cabin in southwestern Virginia, where he is working on a novel.

ERIC FORBES spoke to JOSH WEIL over a series of emails in early 2009:

Tell me something about yourself.
I think my best thoughts on writing while hiking to the top of an Appalachian ridge, among the wild rhododendrons, and with the wind howling. And I write them down with earplugs in and wool socks on and a thick white diner mug that my brother gave me.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I started to write long before I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was just a need I had: to grapple with the stories in my head. I use that term loosely—stories. One of the earliest ones that I remember writing was a western about a man named Buck who killed another man in a knife fight (it wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t meant to!) and was hunted down by a posse and hanged from a cottonwood tree. I was around 10 years old, but even then, I got caught up in the twists of this character’s life, found myself feeling deeply for someone who was, well, made up. That hooked me. When I was a senior in high school I wrote a novel. I use that term even more loosely than I did ‘story’ above. It was an epic western and it was full of disaster and death and men galloping over the desert plains, but, now that I think of it, it was also pretty full of the themes that would become the ones that drive my writing now. But even after that, I still didn’t think, I want to be a writer. I had always seen myself primarily as a visual artist. Filmmaking seemed the obvious way to bring the two together—the visual instinct and the narrative one—and for a while that was what I studied. But in the year directly after college, I found myself writing a novel again, this time an attempt at a literary novel. For a year, I lived more in the world of that book than in the real world. And when it was done, I knew, no matter how flawed that first serious novel was, that this writing thing was what I wanted to do.

Was it difficult getting your stories published in literary magazines? Was it also difficult getting your first book, The New Valley, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first collection of novellas?
I think for all but a very rare few—those writers for whom astonishing luck and breathtaking talent and maturity beyond their years all come together at once; having all those things at different times in life won’t do it—it’s difficult getting stories published. For the rest of us, it’s just about writing the best stories we can, and doggedly pushing ourselves to make them better, and asking editors to keep looking at our work. I published my first story on an online journal when it was a finalist for a competition, and then moved slowly up through better journals, over years, until one day Granta took a story of mine. It took a while, but the thing is, a few years earlier, my stories wouldn’t have been good enough. So, I guess the system pretty much works. If you have real talent and you keep pushing yourself, you will eventually have truly good work, and if you keep pushing beyond that to get it published, someone will eventually recognise it. It ain’t easy—it’s hell, in many ways. But, in the end, the good stuff outs.

Getting my first book published was different. That was a combination of having the right work and the right agent for it. My first agent went out with a novel of mine that came infuriatingly close to selling, but never did. That was a very tough, depressing experience. But, now that The New Valley is coming out, I’m so glad that the previous novel didn’t sell. These novellas feel like the right thing for my first book. They feel like my best work; they feel like me, like who I am as a writer. And my new agent—PJ Mark of McCormick & Williams in New York, who is a gem of a man, as well as the best agent I could hope to have—saw that. He was the one who suggested we go out with a collection of novellas. My jaw hit the floor. Novellas? Nobody sells novellas. Nobody even reads novellas. Nevertheless, the book was sold to Grove/Atlantic in about a week. Grove, especially my editor there, Elisabeth Schmitz, have been amazing to work with. I still love that earlier novel, the one that never got sold, and I’ll go back to it someday, but I know that the novellas are better than that novel is right now. Like I said, the best stuff will out.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite American authors? Why?
I know some authors who seem to have read really fine, sophisticated literary fiction and nonfiction from, well, about as soon as they could read. I’m not one of them. I grew up on great tales, great stories with exciting characters, but, for the most part, not great literary works. I plowed through thrillers by Frederick Forsyth (I read The Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War many times; I guess I had a thing for titles that referred to canines) and Leon Uris’s historical epics. I read western stuff, mostly nonfiction; I remember an autobiography by a late 19th-century cowboy that really affected me, and a diary by a trapper in the northwest during the same era, but by the time I was in high school that led me, almost without my being aware of it, to some great stories that were also deeply literary in quality. Ron Hansen’s Desperadoes was eye-opening to me—a gunslinging western tale told in beautiful, breathtaking prose, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is, of course, written by a master, but it’s also a hell of a yarn. Suddenly the earlier stuff by less literary writers just seemed so much thinner to me. I dove into writers whom I still love, and who were my first substantial influences: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and some contemporary stuff like E. Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs and Other Stories.

Of course, my literary influences have grown, both in number and in variety. Now I’m deeply affected by Anton Chekhov’s subtlety and surety and cleanness; the onrush of time and hypnotising sweep of the worlds in William Faulkner’s work; W.G. Sebald brings me to that, too, like no other recent writer; I am in awe of Russell Bank’s bravery and the boldness of his themes; the precision and wondrous dexterity of Vladimir Nabokov and Annie Proulx as pure wordsmiths challenge and inspire me; Toni Morrison, too, and Cormac McCarthy, in very different ways, seem to bring it all together in worlds so rich they stop my breath and in prose so beautiful it feels like something I drink and eat and absorb as much as read. There are others, too, of course—Raymond Carver, John Cheever, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor—and some playwrights as well: Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Athol Fugard, among others. Filmmakers, too, played a large role in the development of my voice and sensibility, and still deeply influence me: from Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, Bob Rafelson, Lynne Ramsay, Andrei Tarkovsky to the Czech filmmaker Jana Sevcikova. And on and on ...

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I read mostly fiction, though I often love the nonfiction I do read (some of George Orwell, for instance; and I think I admire Hemingway’s nonfiction even more than his fiction). In fact, I just started a memoir called The End of the World As We Know It: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick and it’s reminding me of just how powerful and moving good nonfiction can be. But the biggest chunk of my time is taken up with reading contemporary literary fiction. There’s just so much great stuff out there to learn from. Both stories and novels. And novellas! I recently read Jim Harrison’s novella collection, Julip, which was great—and which prompted me to read his novel, Returning to Earth, which just floored me. It was so beautiful.

Could you tell me a bit about your first collection of novellas?
The New Valley is a triptych of novellas, of course—three of them: in “Ridge Weather,” the first is the story of a soft-spoken middle-aged beef farmer struggling to hold himself together and find a sense of purpose after his father’s suicide; the middle novella, “Stillman Wing,” is about an ageing single father who, desperate to protect his reckless daughter from the dangers he sees everywhere in her world, destroys the most important aspects of his own; and the last one, “Sarverville Remains,” is a first-person apology by a mildly retarded man who has an affair with an older, married woman, told in the form of a letter to her husband. They’re stories of men struggling against grief, solitude, and obsession, but they’re also, to an even greater extent, about the beauty in life that pervades even in the deepest darknesses. Part of that is contained in the world in which they’re set: a valley in Virginia based on a rural mountain community that’s become a large part of my life.

Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
A break from writing? What’s that? No, seriously, it depends on how long a break it is. If it’s something I’m reading in the evening while I’m in the middle of a story or a longer work (I’m writing a novel right now), then I can’t read something that is either too close to what I’m working on subject-wise, or written in a voice that is so strong I know it will creep into my own. So I read either nonfiction or stuff that’s very different from what I’m working on, but still inspiring because it’s just so damn good. Which means I often save the writers who I feel the most kinship with, or who affect me most strongly, for when I’m in between projects. I want to read more poetry. I say that every year. Hell, I tell myself that every week.

Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
A favourite short story? Or a collection? I can’t say I do. I will say that I finished Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway a while ago and it made me shiver with pleasure, exhale in wonder, and howl with envy. Most recently, I read Paul Yoon’s début collection, Once the Shore; I felt like I could feel my heart enlarge every time I finished one of the stories—they are that gorgeous.

Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity?
It does seem that way to me. But I don’t really know. I’d say that with novellas, yes, there definitely seems to be something of a revival. I think the novella is a form that fits this time, that fulfills a certain need right now.

Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
Yeah, it’s definitely harder to publish story collections. Why? Because fewer people want to read them. It’s really that simple. So your question about urging people to read more story collections is really spot on. What can we do? I think a lot of it is using the short form of the story to its advantage. How can it serve a need that the novel can’t? The podcasts from The New Yorker or Selected Shorts on National Public Radio are good examples of this. People want something they can listen to while, say, doing the dishes, but something that they can fit into half an hour or so. Audio of short stories serves that need. So we should be asking ourselves where else can the brevity of the form be an advantage? I’d love to see airline companies publishing short stories in their magazines, or collections sold in airport bookstores. I’d think if something like One Story could be published and sold for a few bucks at, say, railway stations, or subway station magazine kiosks, places where commuters could pick it up and read it instead of their morning slog through the paper, that could really help. Digital delivery is promising, too—like what Tom Jenks and the crew over at Narrative magazine are doing.

“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
I guess I don’t think too much of it. I’d say history provides fascinating events, and the human imagination takes them and makes them into great tales, and a writer’s individual talent and unique point of view makes them into great literature. By the time they get there, of course, the actual history is probably just one influence of many.

“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
I think a lot more of this quote. I’d only add that they change what we think the questions are. They change the questions we ask from that point on.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
A novel takes so much stamina and long-term immersion, but that immersion also allows me to lose myself in the work in a way that’s just not quite possible with a short story. A long work takes a great deal of flexibility in how the story changes from conception to completion and the very difficult task of being able to see, with clear eyes, the full arc of a story over 300 pages or so. Short stories feel to me like they explode outward from an idea, an image, whatever sparks them. And then it’s a matter of packing that moment, and what unravels from it, with as much meaning and depth and power (or whatever the author’s after) in that one lung-burning sprint. I like both, honestly. I used to feel much more comfortable with longer forms, but I’m beginning to feel equally comfortable with short ones. It took me seven or eight years of working on stories to get to that point. And the same amount of time to hone my writing abilities to a point where I could begin to make the work that came out of my comfort with the long form, well, worth it.

But your question leaves out the novella! Honestly, that’s the form in which I feel most at home, most challenged, and most excited. I think a novella allows the kind of freedom with experimentation that a short story allows, and yet lets the reader (and the writer) live with a character and fully inhabit a world the way a novel does, which leads to the chance for emotional involvement that I find rare in stories when compared to novels. In fact, I feel like it can be even greater in a novella, because it’s fully possible to read a 100-page work in one sitting (say, a day at the beach, or a long plane ride) in a way that’s rare with a novel. The effect of that—a novel-like immersion and a story-like compactness of experience—can, at its best, be very powerful.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
About contests: Not really. I think they might be necessary to keep literary journals afloat and to help already successful literary writers remain engaged (and a little more financially sound) as judges, but I think that serious writers will write their best work regardless of whether they might win a prize, or not. I’d rather have my work in a great magazine, just to have it in that magazine’s pages, than win a chunk of cash in a competition, and I think most serious writers would feel the same way. That said, competitions give writers the boost they need to bring their work attention from those good magazines and journals, so they definitely have value. I’m just saying I don’t think they’re imperative.

Writing courses are another matter. I think writing workshops, especially, serve a very real and very important purpose. In graduate school and at workshops in which I’ve participated since then, I’ve been challenged to expand my idea of individual stories and of writing in general, and that’s hugely valuable. I’ve honed my own ideas by having to explain them to others, and sharpened my thinking about writing. I’ve met the people who became my most trusted readers—and there are few things more important to a writer’s work than that.

What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
I think the training is simply writing—a lot of it. Whether that’s stories or a first novel (perhaps a failed one, or two, or three) or plays or even screenplays or poetry, it’s all good. And necessary. I really think it’s the time spent wrestling with the craft that matters, not the particular form in which the wrestling is done. Story is story, voice is voice, vision is vision, be it in a short story or a novel. I think it’s as likely that someone could write their first great work in the form of a novel as in the form of a short story. But I think it’s pretty damn unlikely that someone will write either one truly well without wrestling with their writing for a good many years first.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
The “in your opinion” part of this question is the most important part, but, having said that, I’d lay out this list: the voice and vision are unique to the author so that it’s clear nobody else could have written the work in quite the same way; the language might be straightforward or complex, but it’s never lazy; there are elements in the story and, even more importantly, in the way it’s told, that surprise me; and, of course, the basics—the characters grab me, the story moves me, the world of the work lingers long after I’ve finished reading it.

What are you working on at the moment?
Well, a few things, actually, but mainly a large and sprawling beast of a novel set in North and Central Africa in the 1870s. Sometimes, for my own sanity, I need to shake myself loose of that, which is what I’m doing right now by working on (and here my agent is going to shiver) another novella.

ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. He has always been obsessed with the relationship between literature and life, and the role it plays in society. He has edited many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. He is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).